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How Did Food Stamps Begin?

August 27, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

Started during the Great Depression to help farmers, businesses—and the hungry—the program was later expanded under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

The U.S. food stamp program was launched at a time when the nation was facing a tragic paradox: As millions of Americans suffered from hunger during the . “We can take our pick on these surplus commodities instead of taking what they give us.”

Rochester grocers benefited as well as recipients channeled $50,000 into their coffers during the program’s first four days. “I was cleaned out of flour when the stamp rush started,” grocer Joseph Mutolo told FSCC officials when he became the first retailer to redeem the stamps. “That certainly is different from the old days when you gave food away at the big food depot. Then, when you gave away flour or butter, I sold none. Now it seems I can’t keep stocked up.”

Building on the initial success, the food stamp program was rolled out to additional pilot cities and expanded to half the counties in the United States. Eligible Americans could buy between $1 and $1.50 in orange stamps weekly for each family member. The program fed 20 million Americans until it was discontinued in 1943 when the economic stimulus provided by World War II eased unemployment and crop surpluses.

Food Stamps Revived Under JFK, Expanded Under Nixon

President John F. Kennedy, who had been struck by the poverty he had witnessed in West Virginia during the 1960 Democratic primary campaign, revived food stamps as a pilot program as one of his first actions upon taking office in 1961.

While recipients were still required to pay for their food stamps, the special stamps for surplus goods were eliminated. The Food Stamp Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 31, 1964, codified and expanded the program. “The food stamp plan will be one of our most valuable weapons for the war on poverty,” Johnson proclaimed at the signing ceremony.

A woman using food stamps to purchase her groceries in Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1939.

Although launched by Democratic presidents, the food stamp program saw its largest expansion under the stewardship of a Republican president, Richard Nixon, in the wake of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s highly publicized trips to the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, the Poor People’s Campaign of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. …read more


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